I often note Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning book All The Light We Cannot See as the perfect novel, so what a delight to read his latest work Cloud Cuckoo Land (Harper Collins 2021). Doerr is a master storyteller, whether in his short fiction or his longer works, and he is particularly skilful at gathering an enormous saga – different times, characters, storylines – and bringing them all together in a way that seems astonishing and unexpected, and yet which totally makes sense. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a doorstop of a book at 626 pages but do not let this put you off – each chapter is only two or three pages long, a small enough chunk to be digested in one go (although I promise you will only want to keep turning the pages.)
How to describe this novel? It is about two contemporary men, one old and one young, who have led very different lives. Both have suffered unspeakable grief and damage; one will inflict a terrible wrong, while the other will sacrifice everything for people he hardly knows. Part of this novel is set in the 1400’s in Constantinople, featuring a young woman and a young man who don’t know each other, but whose paths will inevitably cross. And part of the book is set in the future: a lone girl isolated on an experimental biosphere that has been launched into space because of the destruction of the earth. You see what I mean? How could all of these stories possibly connect? And yet they do.
And what connects them is words, stories and the keepers of those stories. In the beginning it is oral storytellers, and the first tales and fables to be handwritten on vellum. In the contemporary world it is the librarians – keepers of fact and fiction, encouragers of reading and knowledge. And in the future, it is artificial intelligence, a vast system that knows everything that has ever happened in the universe. The book is a gift to these story-keepers, a thank you for their custodianship of our history.
The story relies on mythology, fairy tales and myths. Its deepest beginnings are rooted far into the ground. Its fictional extrapolation branches into a massive spreading tree with infinite leaves and impossible possibilities.
This is a love story; several, actually. It is about grief and loss, pain and abuse, sacrifice and belonging. It is a climate change wake-up call. It seeks out the very first written stories and shows how they are relevant today. It reminds us of the importance of safeguarding our stories for tomorrow.
There are a couple of twists in this tale that I certainly did not see coming, and which made me gasp with wonderment.
The timeframes are alternated throughout the book and at first it cannot seem possible that the author will manage to somehow bring them together with a common theme or meaning, but his skill develops the plot so that by the end, you cannot imagine the beginning without the end, or the finish without the start. Everything is connected. A butterfly flapping its wings in 1452 has an effect centuries later.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I love all of Doerr’s writing and this book is especially great.